Dee Gordon’s Improbable Rise
The one constant in baseball is Mike Trout, who leads the Majors with 9.9 WAR. Everything else, as we’ve come to expect, is subject to change. Strange things tend to happen in April. For example, Wil Myers leads the league in runs scored. Paulo Orlando has evolved into “The God of Triples”. Nelson “he’s going to struggle to hit for power in SAFECO” Cruz has slugged 14 home runs already and Stephen Vogt trails only Adrian Gonzalez in OPS.
Another one of the biggest surprises of the 2015 season from a fantasy perspective has been Miami Marlins second baseman Dee Gordon, who leads the Majors in hits (46) and batting average (.422). Through 26 games, Gordon is slashing .422/.449/.505 with 16 runs scored, 11 RBI and 12 stolen bases in 119 plate appearances.
Eventually all player performance comes back to earth. As the whirlpool principal, a theory developed by the legendary Bill James, states, “player performance is forcefully drawn to the center, towards a player’s career average level of performance.” It may take a few weeks or a few months, but it’s going to happen.
The real story isn’t that Gordon’s numbers are a virtual lock to regress. The lofty batting average has been inflated by a preposterously high .474 batting average on balls in play (BABIP) and a 24% infield hit percentage, both rates which are unsustainable over the course of a full season. It’s that when he regresses back from the stratosphere, he won’t crater into relative obscurity, he will still be one of, if not, the most valuable second basemen in fantasy baseball.
The adjustments Gordon has made at the plate with his approach, tailoring his game to play to his strengths, most notably his blazing speed, has enabled him to establish a much-higher offensive floor than most fantasy owners previously envisioned.
Much of Gordon’s fantasy value in Los Angeles can be attributed to his major league-leading 64 stolen bases last year. He still managed to hit .289/.326/.378 but his walk rate cratered in the second half and he rapidly devolved into the fantasy equivalent of Guy Fieri in the minds of most fantasy baseball owners.
This past offseason, it was easy to acknowledge that there was a ton of flash in his game (Flash Gordon pun intended) and while the end result statistically may look like a plate of buffalo blue-sabi lollipop wings, the heartburn you get as a result of eating (paying an inflated premium on draft day for a steals-only guy with massive downside) may not be worth it.
When Gordon was first acquired by Miami, the Juan Pierre rhetoric started up almost immediately. It may seem like a lazy comparison, but the thought process behind it isn’t all that far off. Both of their games, both at the plate and on the base path, are predicated on using their top-end speed to their advantage. It became abundantly clear this spring that the Marlins were committed to Gordon for the long haul and were going to give him every chance to succeed.
“They’re going to make me a much better ballplayer over here,” Gordon told FOX Sports Ken Rosenthal in March. “There’s more teaching. And I’m willing to learn.”
The biggest adjustment the Marlins and Gordon appear to have successfully made center around his overall approach at the plate. By shortening up his swing and getting him to focus primarily on hitting line drives and ground balls, he has been transformed into an on-base machine virtually overnight.
According to FanGraphs batted ball data, Gordon’s significant change in approach has resulted in some staggering statistical evidence that backs up his stellar early results. The most compelling indicator of his new approach is the drastic change in his ground ball to fly ball ratio, which is up from 3.13 with the Dodgers last season, to 3.60 in Miami. He also owns the lowest fly ball percentage of any qualified hitter in baseball this season, at just 16.3%.
Since the start of the 2014 campaign, only Ben Revere, Christian Yelich and Nori Aoki have posted higher ground ball to fly ball ratios than Gordon. The common variable between all four hitters is a high batting average (and almost zero power).
Gordon’s new look at the dish certainly inflates his batting average floor, but the other significant development he’s made is an effort to cut down on strikeouts, which is resulting in the high contact rate. When you put that many balls in play, you’re going to beat out some hits if you’re as fast as Gordon.
By this time last year, Gordon had already fanned 20 times. This season, he’s been set down by way of the “k” just 14 times. As a result, his strikeout percentage dropped to just 11.8% (it’s been steadily dropping for three straight years now).
Those are two huge adjustments, changing his batted ball profile and cutting down on the strikeouts are two changes that very few analysts predicted he could accomplish, at least not this quickly.
Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs pointed out in his piece earlier this week, the astonishing number of infield hits that Gordon has racked up so far, comparing his contact rate, which is just above 88% this season, and batted ball profile favorably with one of his current teammates, Ichiro (during his prime in Seattle).
Sullivan also points out that, “out of the 144 players for whom we have at least 40 recorded hit balls, Gordon ranks sixth from the bottom in average exit velocity.” Simply put, that’s a lot of weak contact. He isn’t driving the ball.
Sullivan’s ultimate verdict on Gordon is that, “He’s also a hitter who’s going to be all about his BABIP. I can promise you his BABIP isn’t going to finish at .489. I can also promise you there’s a hell of a gulf between .310 and .350. Not that you can ever see it, except at the end.”
Regression is coming for Gordon. However, there is little doubt that he’s raised his floor from a hitter who may lose his job, to one of the better contact hitters in baseball. Hitting atop a loaded Miami lineup ahead of Christian Yelich, Giancarlo Stanton and Marcell Ozuna for the better part of the next decade, Gordon dynasty league value as one of the elite second basemen in the game, appears like a much safer bet than it did a month ago.